I’ve often said that creating and building a business is not a one-man show, even though it usually springs from the mind and determination of one person – committees don’t start successful businesses. But taking an idea to a business success requires many people to work together effectively, and that requires entrepreneurial leadership.
Leadership is not a skill one is born with, but it can be learned and honed from experience and failures. We all start with what researchers term the “knowing-doing gap.” We know what should be done, but we don’t know how to get it done. Many people assume the solution is to find the recipe, or leader’s checklist, and follow it methodically.
I think it takes a few more steps to “activate” the checklist and fruitfully engage in the activities that lead to leadership success. Michael Useem of Wharton, in his new book, “The Leader’s Checklist,” outlines 15 mission-critical leadership principles, and also includes six avenues of learning for new entrepreneurs to activate their leadership skills:
- Study leadership moments. A first step is to become a self-directed student of leadership. This study can take many forms: reading leaders’ biographies, witnessing leaders in action and joining leadership development programs. What’s critical is witnessing how others have worked with a full checklist or fallen short, often a powerful reminder to examine whether you yourself are employing all the necessary principles.
- Solicit coaching and mentoring. Solicit personal feedback from individuals who can provide informed, fine-grained advice on not only the leadership capacities that you already exhibit but those that require better display. It is hard to correct what you do not know you are not doing.
- Accept stretch experiences. Ask for and accept new responsibilities outside your comfort zone. By testing fresh territories and experiencing the setbacks they can bring, you can grow to appreciate the shortfalls in your own leadership style even as you learn to more consistently apply it.
- Conduct after-action reviews of personal leadership moments. Look back on leadership actions just taken, asking what worked, what was not invoked, and even what was missing from the original checklist. Through such efforts, entrepreneurs who actively pursue feedback from their team and their customers are on the road to success.
- Endure extremely stressful leadership moments. Transform a chilling experience into a learning opportunity. We often learn as much from setbacks as successes—sometimes we learn even more from setbacks than successes—and with an unflinching study of the stumbles, you have a greater readiness to apply real leadership the next time.
- Experience the leadership moments of others. The final step is to vicariously or directly experience a leadership moment of a mentor or peer. When you walk in another’s shoes during a critical test of leadership, you will build a better appreciation for when and how to invoke your own leadership elements.
The core principles of leadership for every entrepreneur include articulating a vision, think and act strategically, act decisively, communicate persuasively, motivate the troops, build relationships, and building leadership in others. Of course, these need to be customized for every culture and every business environment.
In every environment, there is a final and most vital leadership principle – common purpose comes first and personal self-interest comes last. In business, it appears in Jim Collin’s appraisal as one of the defining qualities of those who lead their companies from “good to great.”
Entrepreneurial leadership has its greatest impact in times of uncertainty and change, like the present. How wide is your knowing-doing gap, and how actively are you working to close it?